Of the 535 members of the 114th Congress, 438 are men.
All 535 U.S. representatives and senators found a letter from Meryl Streep on their desks asking them to reignite the constitutional fight for gender equality this morning. Even in 2015, almost 400 of the letters—380—were addressed to white men.
Only 97 women, fewer than 20 percent of our federal legislators, received Streep’s message.
In the letter, Streep implores Congress to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, which almost became part of the U.S. Constitution in the 1970s, passing through Congress but receiving only 35 of the 38 state ratifications it needed before time expired in 1979. The ERA failed because of an extensive campaign by Phyllis Schlafly and conservative groups to transform the amendment from a simple codification of gender equality into an attack on traditional roles of women.
Without Schlafly, the ERA likely would have been ratified by the last three states it needed in 1975 or 1976, according to Jane Mansbridge, a political science professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, in her 1986 book “Why We Lost the ERA.”
The ERA is a sentence-long amendment that makes constitutional protections now provided in only 11 states a national mandate. Its language doesn’t even seem controversial in today’s society. It says: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”
That’s it. That’s the entire substance of the amendment.
In fact, Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, says that 70 percent of people are “shocked” when they find out we don’t have an ERA in the Constitution.
Streep argues that women still “face resistance” even though they are expected to “lead in almost any part of society.”
Popular hashtags like #FeminismIsCruelty or #FeministsAreUgly, which show up as suggestions on Twitter, are just a small sample of that resistance. In fact, “resistance” is an massive understatement.
As John Oliver discussed on his “Last Week Tonight” featured segment this week, women face extreme discrimination on the Internet, from explicit rape and death threats that include victims’ addresses and phone numbers to revenge porn—the posting of naked pictures or videos without a woman’s permission, which is not prohibited by federal law.
Women are 25 times more likely to receive threatening or sexually explicit messages online than men, according to a 2006 University of Maryland study.
Anita Sarkeesian, an advocate for gender equality in videogames, has received a particularly violent response to her work. In the Oliver clip, she is shown with a police escort, and in an interview from May 2014, she had been the subject of a coordinated harassment and slander campaign designed to discredit her for over a year and a half. (To those who may not know, Sarkeesian and game developer Zoe Quinn are at the center of the ‘Gamergate’ controversy.)
Passing the ERA would help to nationalize piecemeal state laws regarding equal pay, sick leave, health coverage, violent threats, and harassment, making continued resistance to gender equality almost impossible.
Zac Bears can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. (Photo in the public domain courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).